SPORTS A Modern-day Gladiator by Timothy Martin

North Coast Journal


A Modern-Day Gladiator

by Timothy Martin

GERRY HARRIS IS BUSY these days, logging miles on his bike, pumping weights in the gym, training six hours a day. It's a furious pace, but Harris, a black belt in Kyokushinkai-Kan Karate, is preparing for the fight of his life. On Sept. 8, he will step into an octagon-shaped ring in Buffalo, New York, and go head-to-head against the world's toughest men at the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

If you're timid, shy, afraid of seeing people whomped, chomped and flattened -- if you're afraid of sweat, blood and an occasional broken bone, you probably don't want to read further.

Ultimate Fighting is martial arts experts locked in mortal combat: it's Brazilian Jujitsu against Korean Tae Kwon Do, Sumo Wrestling versus Kenpo, Muay Thai Kickboxing trading blows with classical Karate, Shaolin Kung-Fu mixing it up with Shootfighting.

Ultimate Fighting is no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled fighting that respects only the tough, heavy hitters. Competitors get inhaled, chewed dry and spit out when their time is done. It might not be every-one's idea of a good time, but it's just what Harris, 37, has been searching for.

The Eureka resident, who works as a bouncer and bartender for the Eureka Inn, said his sport "is about finishing a fight, not winning. It's about survival." Harris is an expert on the subject of survival. Born in Dallas, Texas, abandoned by his father at age 3, roaming the streets, drinking, wrecking carsä Then there was the fighting.

Harris' natural gift -- a perfectly sculpted 6-foot, 8-inch, 250-pound body -- has been a mixed blessing. It has enabled him to excel in the most challenging sports. But it has been a curse, of sorts, leading to all sorts of demands and expectations. Like a modern-day gunslinger, Harris said he has had to prove himself over and over.

"I was a big overweight kid in junior high," recalled Harris, shuffling his size 15-!/2 triple E shoes under the table.

"I got into a little trouble. I had a boy that was always picking on me. My mom told me: 'Get out there and fight that boy or deal with me. Stand your guard.'ä My mother was a powerful woman. She taught me that I can do anything if I put my mind to it."

Life hardened Harris. In high school he wrestled and played football. He studied hard, got good grades and, when necessary, fought with the raw fury of someone trying to break free.

Still fighting, he's not the least bit embarrassed to talk about his soft side. "I've always liked kids," he said, smiling. "I've got four of my own. I studied Early Childhood Education at the University of Wisconsin, and I'm strongly motivated towards helping children. I've pledged 10 percent of my winnings (from the Ultimate Fighting Championship) to help battered women and sexually abused children in Humboldt County."

Harris, who holds several national karate titles, is organizing the Eureka Martial Arts Center.

"The fight is a means to an end," he said. "At the Martial Arts Center I want to teach women and children how to protect themselves. I will train 'hard style' along with other styles of martial arts.

According to Harris, "hard style" or Kyokushinkai-Kan style Karate is comprised of hard punches, elbows to the body and leg kicks -- the closest thing to street fighting you can get.

"Mas Oyama was the one who came up with this system of Karate," explained Harris. "The idea is to find an opponent's weakness and work on that spot. By doing that, you overload the body. You take away his weapons."

Harris, who took his black belt test in the mid-1980s, was required to do all the Kyokushinkai-Kan Karate forms and speak in Japanese.

"The final requirement was to fight 30 karate matches," he grinned broadly. "That was three hours of fighting with senior fighters. I couldn't walk for three weeks after."

After Harris received his black belt, he held a number of jobs. He instructed karate, played professional football for Dallas and Cleveland, and worked for the Milwaukee Brewers as a security man for the players' wives.

In 1988 he moved to Humboldt County and taught karate in Ferndale. As a karate instructor, Harris has been described as having great control. His hallmark is his composure in the way he thinks, the way he speaks, but most obviously, in the way he fights.

Harris insists that his unflappable nerves are simply the result of many years of practice. Only once was Harris accused of losing his control. His claim to blame came in 1993 while working as a bouncer for the Ritz Club in Eureka. What started out as a confrontation between two local football players and another bar patron, Harris stepped in to break up the fight. One of the players then made the mistake of calling the 6-foot, 8-inch karate instructor with fists the size of suitcases, "boy."

Harris grabbed the two men in simultaneous headlocks, escorted them to the door, and dumped them on the sidewalk. One man hit hard, suffering a fractured skull and chipped teeth. A civil suit was filed against him but he was found not liable for damages.

The incident made Harris more determined to channel his power -- in a direction more socially acceptable and, perhaps, more lucrative.

It was at a Karate tournament in Japan that ESPN officials took one look at Harris and knew they had an Ultimate Fighter.

"I'm going to be able to fight the way I want to," Harris said, smiling. "I'll finally be able to do what I want. I'm made for this style of fighting."

For Harris there will be several obstacles on the road to the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the $60,000 payoff. He will have to battle a series of fighters, including some well-known Ultimate punchers like Canadian Karate Champion Harold Howard, third degree Tae Kwon Do back belt Kimo, Shootfighting expert Ken Shamrock, Ninjitsu master Steve Jennum.

And there is another, deadlier, viper lurking in the woodpile: Royce Gracie. Gracie, a fourth degree black belt in the art of Brazilian Jujitsu, is the most ferocious Ultimate Fighting competitor around. At a mere 176 pounds, he is the one of the slightest fighters, but his devastating choke holds and arm locks render his competition helpless. He will fight until an opponent's survival instinct overrides his pride and shuts him down, working like a subconscious circuit breaker. On top of everything, Gracie has a pain threshold comparable to some forest creatures.

"Gracie? I'm not worried about him," Harris grumbled. "I've never been knocked out, never been beaten. I've lost a match by points, but I always wanted to go on. Gracie is not going to get close to me."

Harris's high self-esteem and belief in himself as a Ultimate Fighting champion lies not only in his power and strength, but in his finesse. Many sports, like football, equate tough with huge, and the college drafts are often reminiscent of cattle roundups. In Ultimate Fighting, however, huge doesn't always cut it. Large, lumpy lads are usually weeded out of the competition quickly. Harris is not about to let that happen to him.

"I've always trained with light students," he said. "They move fast. They make you use your brain. The fighters are going to be good, but I'm not worried. I consider myself a warrior out there.

"You're putting yourself against another man who has put in as much training. It's not about winning. It's about surviving."

What happens if destiny kicks Harris in the rear end and throws him into the turn buckle? What happens if he loses the fight?

"Lose?" The word arouses a Beethoven scowl on Harris's face. "I won't lose. I've been preparing for this fight all year. I'm ready for anything." Harris pauses a moment, focusing his thoughts, putting himself in that rare place where one fights intuitively, fluidly, unburdened by doubt and fear.

"In Japanese there is a word," he said. "Osu. It means I'll never stop trying. I'll try as hard as I can. I know I'm going to be able to deal with the competition. The question is, can they deal with me?"

The Ultimate Fighting Championship can be viewed on pay-per-view television Sept. 8 at 5:30 p.m. ($19.95). For further information contact Cox Cable at 443-3127.

Timothy Martin is a part-time writer and a full-time heating and ventilation specialist at Humboldt State University.

Comments? E-mail the Journal:

The North Coast Journal Table of Contents

North Coast Journal weekly banner